Decentralization is commonly advocated as a means to improve primary services and hence accelerate social development. Although solid theoretical arguments support this position, the empirical evidence by and large does not. This paper examines whether local governance can improve public service delivery, and hence social development, empirically with detailed evidence on good and bad cases of public service effectiveness in Bangladesh. We examine the institutional underpinnings of service provision, digging down beneath the formal and informal “rules of the game” to analyze the beliefs, understandings and dispositions that drive social behavior. Such ideas and attitudes set the incentives faced by both producers and users of public services, and hence the degree of accountability that public servants face. We find that changes in attitudes, which led to improvements in social indicators, coincided with rising educational levels, and training and outreach by NGOs. But such changes affected all of Bangladesh in similar ways. Regional variation in social outcomes is explained by the presence in certain areas of a dense web of relationships that enmeshed such advances, and their protagonists, in local systems of authority and legitimacy, strengthening their actions and making local society more susceptible to change
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